Many English words – including "sugar" and "alchemy" – come from Arabic, according to V. R. Narayanaswami, "Tracing English Words Back to Arabic Origins." Sugar, like coffee, tea, and gold, is actually a trade word. Thus the word for "sugar" is similar in English, Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, ancient Sumerian, and many modern languages. Words beginning with "al" come from Arabic via Spain (where the Arabs lived and ruled from the 7th century A.D. until 1492, intermarrying with the Basques; Spanish has incorporated the Arabic definite article "al" [the] as "el"). Even the Arabic word "bi" is a bit like the English word '"by:" "bi-haadha-a[l]sh-shab" means "'by [or "for"] this thing," "because of this" (although the etymology of "by" is unclear, "bi" may be related to it via Sanskrit).

Widely Spoken

Of the world's languages, Arabic has the fifth largest number of speakers (after Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, and English) according to VISTAwide World Languages and Cultures. It's spoken in North Africa, the Arabian Gulf, the Levant (Cyprus, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; also some Jewish Arabic communities speak this variety), as well as Iraq and parts of Iran. In the U.S. the highest concentration of Arabic speakers is in Michigan according to the 2000 U.S. census, cited in "The Language Spread of Arabic in the United States," while the highest number is in California. (Notes on dialects: Sudanese and Mauritanian dialects differ from other North African dialects; also some dialects spoken in Eastern Syria and Jordan are closer to Iraqi Arabic than to dialects from the Levant. Most Arabic speakers in the U.S. are from the Levant.)

Want to learn more? Check out these online links for learning its alphabet and pronunciation, basic language skills, and basic speaking. All links are for standard Arabic. (Links to texts in Egyptian and Moroccan dialects will be provided in a future article.)

Alphabet and Sounds

Since a number of sounds and letters differ from English sounds, the best place to start is with the alphabet and corresponding sounds. Unlike English, many Arabic sounds are spoken deep in the throat. The voiceless h'aa and the voiced a'yn (the first sound in the word for Arabic, 'al-'arabiya) are made in the pharynx, while qa'af is formed in the uvula. These sounds are thus a bit like sounds made in "throat singing." ("Throat singing" is a tradition among the Inuit and the herdsmen of South Siberia and perhaps some other groups; see video).

Some Arabic sounds are close to some English sounds in pronunciation, but also involve constrictions in the throat. These include pharyngealized versions of s, d, t, and z: s'aad (the initial consonant in "friend," s'aadiq), and d'aad, as well as t'aa (which begins the word for "student," t'aalib), and z'aa (also called th'aa). Also, as noted, the uvular qa'af is a pharyngealized version of k (Arabic also has its own non-pharyngealized s, d, t, z, and k sounds). What's a "pharyngealized s"? If the s in the English word "sad" were pharyngealized then the following vowel "a" would be pronounced more like the vowel in Saudi; the s would change too, of course.

Another non-English sound, albeit close to the English g, is gh'ayn, the first sound in the word for "west," 'al-'arb (from which we get the word Maghreb, "to the west" of other Arab countries). Pronounced in the same place as gh'ayn is kh'aa. It sounds a lot like the sound in the German word, "nicht," ("not"), and the Scottish word "loch," ("lake").

One sound made deep in the throat that English shares with Arabic is the glottal constriction in the throat at the start of the word, "apple;" however in Arabic this sound is associated with a written symbol called hamza. Arabic is written from right to left, whereas English is written from left to right. Its letters are joined as in cursive writing (its cousin Hebrew is always printed).

One more thing you'll notice: in Arabic only consonants and three long vowels/glides (aleph, wa'w, and ya'a) are written; short vowels are simply indicated with a diacritic mark, and usually this mark is omitted since readers know where it should be. And note: the vowels vary slightly according to dialect; for example, in Palestinian Arabic, the a vowel sound is often fronted and may sound like the e in "bell" or "bet".

Fun With Arabic's Alphabet Basics depicts the letters and the shapes they can take; there's also an alphabet song so you can hear the letters' names pronounced.

At abjad's alphabet pyramid you can learn more about shaping characters in Arabic (the categories of letter shapes can be arranged as a pyramid according to abjad). Click on the characters to see how each is connected in a word, depending on whether it occurs at the beginning, middle, or end of the word (and don't forget characters are written right to left). One row in the abjad pyramid holds letters that cannot connect to succeeding letters.

For the computer-savvy, Andreas Prilop's site provides the alphabet with unicode codes associated with each character, and the various shapes for each, depending on position. (Unicode character encoding is widely used to encode for the net characters of a variety of languages.)

Don't be confused about two versions of some of the letters at this last site: a character that looks almost exactly like the character ha (ه)occurs only at the end of a word to indicate that the word is feminine. This is called tah-marbuut'ah or "connected t" (ة). It is silent unless the inflectional ending that follows the word is pronounced, in which case tah-marbuut'ah is pronounced like t. (An inflectional ending indicates that a word is nominative, accusative, or genitive; the ending is often omitted in speech in Arabic.) There is also a character that resembles ya'a (ي), but lacks the two dots underneath. Its pronunciation is actually identical to that of the vowel alif. Its name is "alif maksuurah" or "broken alif." (ى).

For still more on the alphabet, check out the links provided by the online University of Texas/Georgetown textbook. (At Brustad, al-Batal, al-Tonsi, 'al-kitaab fiy ta'lim al-'arabiya, "The book for studying Arabic." While this course is not that accessible, these links are; note that since Arabic is written from right to left, the scrollbar is on the left of the page).

Language Basics

Having learned the alphabet, you are ready for words and phrases. You may already know "salaam," or "peace" (related words, "tasal'im" [submission] and "Islam"). Perhaps also you know the greeting "ahlan," "welcome" (alternately, since Arabic has a fondness for rhymed pairs, "ahlan wa sahlan," "welcome and [be at ] ease;" for a more detailed explanation of this phrase see the forum at word reference). If you have Muslim friends, you'll soon hear, "al-h'amd'ullaah" ("thanks to God," "praise to God," an acceptable response to almost any question, particulary questions about well being, but others too. "How are you?," "Your business?," "Your family?," even, "How did you get here?").

The quiz at "Fun With Arabic" tests your knowledge of some basic phrases (however, there are no lessons here for learning these phrases; you can also find a list of Arabic pronouns in the grammar section; for more the site suggests several books).

Arabic 4 Fun's offerings incude the numbers 1-20, colors, shapes, fruit. This site is designed for kids, although others can learn here. It requires Adobe Shockwave.

Interested in some simple greetings? Check out "Marh'aban" ("hello") at "Learn Arabic Language." With sound clips. Pages listing vocabulary words are also available. ("Learn Arabic Language" is part of the website of St. Takla Haymanout Coptic Orthodox Church.)

Gustan E. von Grunebaum Center provides an online Iraqi Tutor with sound clips and exercises. (Most words are standard written Arabic though perhaps spoken with an accent; however some are peculiar to Iraq: "chai," "tea," is Iraqi Arabic, from Persian.) The list of idioms include greetings (with pronunciations for English speakers).


A complete online course is available through: Speak 7 "Learn Arabic." Standard Written Arabic – basic grammar, plus more advanced reading and writing activities, with English translations. These lessons, though limited, are really, really accessible! Check out the simple phrases, pronouns, interrogatives (questions), as well as collections of adjectives, verbs, time & weather words. There are more lessons for sale.

A word of caution on the collections of vocabulary at Speak 7: be careful using prepositions if you decide to study them. A preposition may not mean quite the same thing in Arabic that its translation means in English. For example, "for" can be used in Arabic to express possession: hadhaa huwa la-haa ("this is for her," "this is hers;" la means "for" or "to"); or 'an-diy kitaab ("for me a book;" "I have a book;" 'an means "for" or "on" or "about").

The University of Texas at Austin has provided online listening activities for spoken Arabic at its "Aswaat 'Arabiyya" or "Arabic Voices," University of Texas at Austin's collection of short (and relatively easy-to-understand) videos. The short videos come from varied countries (Morocco, Egypt, Qatar), some taken from real commercials and news.

Again the scrollbars are on the left. Click on the bottom links (right-to-left again) to find the matching vocabulary and questions. Most beginning videos are of excellent quality (the commercial for CINE tv is really clear; if you like food check out videos explaining tabouli and fatoush). The lessons at speak7 are the more basic; the two collections go well together.